No one in live comedy is thrilled about moving shows online. “Doing standup without an audience is like sex without an orgasm,” quipped Felicia Madison, the booker for West Side Comedy Club. “Why bother?”
But in the era of social distancing, you make do. Comedians quickly adjusted, telling jokes on their social media feeds and holding online benefits. But after these efforts, everyone was faced with the daunting challenge of how to make live comedy economically viable for the long term.
While many have decided to wait the quarantine out, some producers have built new online business models, charging money for stand-up or storytelling shows that are transitioning to streaming or inventing new kinds of talk shows on the internet. There’s been a startling amount of entrepreneurial experimentation in the last few weeks, proceeding in fits and starts, and it should have an impact on the culture long after the lockdown ends.
Most traditional clubs have been slow to, and still resist, putting stand-up online. The Comedy Cellar in New York has held a free nightly conversation among comics, and the Comedy Store in Los Angeles has been quiet. The argument for caution in moving the business online is not merely artistic. Several producers expressed unease about asking for money during a crisis, preferring an optional tip over seeking a fee. “If someone is charging money it should either be for charity or they should be ashamed of themselves,” said Cris Italia, owner of the Stand. But doing nothing may not be a sustainable option, particularly for comedians.
“This is the livelihood for many people, so I needed to figure out a way to make money,” said Marianne Ways, the booker for Butterboy, a Monday-night stalwart at Littlefield in Brooklyn. She moved the show, with hosts Jo Firestone, Maeve Higgins and Aparna Nancherla, online early, testing a free night on March 16 before charging $5 for the following week. She sold 812 tickets, which is far more than her 150-seat performing space could hold. Drawing a global audience helped, but 60 percent of the patrons were still from New York. These staggering numbers did not last, though, as competition increased. The audience dropped by roughly 50 percent each of the following two weeks before stabilizing at around 260 with a little less than half from New York.
Ways has encouraged comedians to not just talk about the quarantine. She also learned that good lighting and staying stationary is key. She also arranged for performers to hear laughter from others on the bill if they wanted, which made a difference in the absence of an audience response. “It’s never going to be perfect, but it’s an experiment,” she said. “We’re doing our best.”
Others are following suit. Dan Goodman, who produces Shtick a Pole in It, a seven-year-old East Village show that alternates stand-up and pole dancing burlesque, initially balked at the idea of performing online. But once it became clear the lockdown would last for months, he figured he had nothing to lose. For his April 25 show, he will charge $10, less than half his usual fee, and the performers will be able to see the audience on Zoom, but not hear the crowd until the show is over and the applause is unmuted.
Moving live shows online presents a number of challenges, none more formidable than how to replace audience laughter. Some clubs charging tickets for new shows, like West Side and Eastville, began offering conversations between comics, instead of standup sets. Both still put faces of the crowd on the screen. At West Side, you can even direct-message other members of the crowd, giving it the feel of a comedy club mixed with a dating app. Watching shows on both platforms, I found myself drawn to the audience as much as the comedians.
What became clear is that you don’t have to hear a laugh for it to make an impact. Some people guffaw with their whole body. There’s also something soothing about seeing all those faces, many presumably alone and isolated, a reminder that one of the most important reasons we go to see live entertainment is to be part of a community. But crowds of course want more than that. Madison said that while West Side initially did not want to put stand-up online, choosing instead to run talk shows and other productions rooted in conversations, she noticed that when people didn’t see jokes, they started logging off quickly. She has now starting programming traditional sets.
New conventions are emerging in this suddenly online live-comedy world. “Close your tabs” has replaced “Turn off your cellphones,” and YouTube commenters have become the new hecklers. Comics are also finding a lot of material by playing with split screen, like two comics creating the illusion of melded faces or passing a prop from one screen to another. On a recent podcast, Joel Mandelkorn, a Los Angeles-based producer behind several shows including the popular Hot Tub with Kristen Schaal and Kurt Braunohler, said he had noticed a lot more prop-involved bits and funny facial expressions. “Zoom backgrounds are probably going to be hack in a couple weeks,” he added.
Shows that depend less on frequent punch lines have an easier transition, which helps explain the success of Risk!, a storytelling show with Kevin Allison as the host. Its producer, JC Cassis, said she decided to move online in mid-March out of a sense of panic. With a staff of 20, including six full-timers, and revenue from podcast ads and corporate gigs drying up along with live shows, she concluded: “If we don’t figure out how to do shows online, we’re going to run out of money in a month.”
She started studying shows online, settled on an inexpensive ticketing service (PayPal) and price point ($10 to $12), and announced she was selling tickets. Almost immediately, patrons responded, buying more than 360 tickets. The next week, that number grew. Last week, around 600 people saw the show, and with lower costs (no hotel rooms, agents or venue to pay for), she brought in three times as much profit.
At the start, Allison glanced at the audience on his screen and saw fans from Singapore, Montreal and Tokyo, and exclaimed: “We have a hit on our hands.”
He said he missed the live shows but had been surprised at how similar doing the online version is. “It feels very live,” he said. “There’s that performer thing of reading the room, but it’s going on in my head.”
Cassis said she thought the success was partly because of the lack of competition, but she also cited loyal audiences, gained from a decade of shows, that do not want to see Risk! disappear.
“People are stuck, and they need to feel they are not just watching Netflix but connecting with a community of people having a collective experience,” she said, adding that she thought shows should continue on Zoom even when things return to normal. “Necessity is the mother of invention. Why didn’t we do this before?”